Talking horses with Bob Lounsbury

By TED WADDELL
Posted 3/10/21

MONTICELLO, NY — It all started with a lucky bet at Monticello Raceway more than half a century ago.

On a recent wintery morning, Robert “Bob” Lounsbury sat down in his tack room …

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Talking horses with Bob Lounsbury

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MONTICELLO, NY — It all started with a lucky bet at Monticello Raceway more than half a century ago.

On a recent wintery morning, Robert “Bob” Lounsbury sat down in his tack room office and shared with the River Reporter’s sports scribbler some illuminating insights into the life of horsemen and the triumphs and travails of harness racing today at Monticello Raceway.

Back in 1968 when the “Mighty M” was in full stride as a powerhouse in the world of harness racing, the 16-year-old Lounsbury placed a two-dollar bet. Lady Luck was on his side; he picked up $72 after his horse posted a first-place finish.

“A friend of mine used to sweep up here after school. We used to hang out here a bit at night and bet on a few horses,” he recalled.

Lounsbury’s story then turned to the Vietnam era. He served with the United States Marine Corps 3rd Division, 9th Marines, for a couple of years stationed around Southeast Asia from Japan to the Philippines, with a few stops in between.

In 1971, he started a land-surveying business, and half-a-century later, Lounsbury’s still pounding stakes into the earth and shooting transit lines.

As a land surveyor, Lounsbury soon figured out that the price of health insurance was a hard burden to lift. Back in those days, the raceway offered medical coverage to horsemen; if you ran a couple of horses a week in the winter, or four in the summer, you got insurance.

“So, I said, let me go get a horse,” he recalled. His horse, My Gwen, a trotting mare, won her first two or three races in a row.

“I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Lounsbury, adding that he and his wife, Margaret, are still active in harness racing, a sport he considers his second full-time job along with the surveying business.

“Monticello Raceway was the place to be back in the late ‘60s, right up until the ‘80s,” he said in comparing those halcyon days at the local track to today’s less-than-golden times. “Anybody who was anybody was at Monticello Raceway.” 

Lounsbury said that, in those more prosperous years, you could stroll through the grandstands and encounter the likes of Tina Turner or Leon Spinks, the late pugilist who defeated Muhammad Ali to take the World Heavyweight Boxing Title in 1978.

“I remember Tina Turner singing out by the winner’s circle, and you couldn’t get 20 people to go out and watch her sing,” recollected Lounsbury, as the focus on the trotters in those days was so intense.

Lounsbury said that George Steinbrenner, the late principal owner and managing partner of the New York Yankees, was also a frequent visitor to the “Mighty M” when he took time off from being a backlit star on the television show “Seinfeld.” Lounsbury said, “He drove in a couple of amateur races back in those days when this place was a showplace, top-shelf—back 40-plus years ago.”

For several memorable decades, John Manzi served as the track’s director of publicity, and the colorful cigar-chomping character always had a trick or two up his sleeve to attract fans to the stands. “I love John,” said Lounsbury. “He was a great promoter. He raced the slowest horse here against the fastest man.”

In a case of then and now, like a lot of drivers and trainers, Lounsbury shares the view that Resorts World Catskills, the current owners of the casino and raceway, hasn’t put their full weight and resources into maintaining the local harness track that opened in 1958.

“They look at us like cockroaches. They try a little bit of water and hope we’ll go away, but we’ve been here since the 1950s... They want to shut it down, but that’s never going to happen... We’re always here, pretty much every day; we could probably survive a nuclear war,” he said, not holding back on the sentiments he voiced for many.

According to several sources, the owners have invested a billion dollars in the casino and associated harness track, and some reports indicate the raceway costs approximately three million annually to keep afloat.

“I know we’re a drag on the system right now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Clean this place up a little, and if the horsemen get kicked out of Yonkers, where are the people going to go... a thousand horses, drivers and trainers? Maybe they’ll come here.”

While chatting with Lounsbury for a while, you get the impression he’s a straight talker: a guy who’s not afraid to poke the establishment in the eye while still holding out hope for the future.

“It’s gotten to be a forgotten place,” he said of Monticello Raceway. “They’re into casinos, I’m not. It seems like we should be working together, but it seems like we’re always working apart... We need to work together and promote something. The first thing you need to do is knock down the old grandstand... You need to build a better facility.”

In taking a trot down memory lane, Lounsbury recalled a couple of stellar harness drivers: John Duncan Campbell and Billy “Zeke” Parker Jr.

Campbell, a retired Canadian driver, was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame, the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Considered by many to be the best driver in the history of the sport, he was elected into the United States Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1990, and on July 12, 2008 posted his 10,000th win by guiding Share the Delight to victory in the sixth race at Meadowlands Racetrack.

“He was one of the greatest drivers that ever was,” said Lounsbury. “He drove all over the world and made over $300 million in the game.”

Over the years, Parker has made quite the name for himself at Monticello Raceway, posting his 10,000th and 11,000th career wins at the Mighty M.

A time-yellowed and sun-faded newspaper clipping is taped to the wall in Lounsbury’s tack room, recording Parker’s 10,000th victory at Monticello, complete with an action photo by veteran track photographer Geri Schwarz, who still reigns as the official track shooter at the Mighty M and Goshen Historic Track.

“He was the premier driver here for many years,” said Lounsbury, noting that Parker was in the driver’s seat as Deliver Val, one of the local trainer’s horses, made it into the history books on Monday afternoon, May 17, 2010.

Lounsbury said Parker was “probably one of the top 10 best drivers in the world, a super talented guy, all by himself.”

“He gets them going in the stretch. He can still drive. Not a lot of old guys like Billy could drive like that at the time,” he added of the then 56-year-old driver becoming the ninth-winningest driver in harness racing history.

The press reported that when he cracked the 10,000-win barrier at Monticello, track announcer Howard Oil screamed, “He got it! Parker finally got the 10,000th win! You just saw history in the making!”

Then on Tuesday, July 16, 2013, Parker drove to his 11,000th victory at the Mighty M as he reined Topgun Raider, a horse trained by Delores Basilone, to the milestone win.

To celebrate the track triumph, the Monticello Harness Horsemen’s Association gave Parker an engraved Bulova watch and a cake frosted with “Congratulations Zeke on 11,000 wins.”

Lounsbury’s picks on today’s leading drivers in the sulky seat at Monticello Raceway? “Jim Devaux, he’s been here forever—since he was a kid, and Bruce Aldrich Jr. who has driven for me for the last 15 years.”

Both drivers have been recently profiled in this River Reporter column, Talking Sports.

Lounsbury started training horses in 1985 and, since then, has raced at Pocono Downs, Meadowlands, Yonkers and Tioga Downs—“once in a while at Saratoga”—but considers Monticello Raceway his home track, where he maintains a stable and races several times a week.

“The horsemen’s association treats us pretty well, and I’ve got good people as far as owners go. I call all the shots, do whatever I want,” he said.

At Monticello Raceway, Lounsbury was tabbed Leading Trainer of the Year in three consecutive seasons (2013-2015) and again in 2018; in 2013-2015, he was the percentage leading trainer in North American with more than 500 starts; and in 2018, the Bob Lounsbury Stables posted 330 starts, earning more than $300,000 in winnings.

In a six-year statistical sprint (2011-2016), the local harness horse trainer put down some impressive numbers: According to the United States Trotting Association (USTA), his stable won 756 races out of 2,308 stats, posting a 32.8 win percentage.

Asked what fuels his passion for training harness horses, Lounsbury replied, “It’s not the money; I just never get tired of horse racing. I just love watching ‘em win. Ask any driver, they’re not doing it for the money, they just want to win races!”

UPDATE, MARCH 14: This article was updated to include the name of Delores Basilone as the trainer for Topgun Raider.

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